Posted February 10, 2014
Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 5: 13–16) is about influence. It is about the influence that the disciples of Jesus have on others – not, of course, in the sense of imposing their views upon others, but in the sense of quietly influencing their minds and hearts, as an oil lamp gives light to all in the house, and lets them see what they are doing; or as salt gently spreads a savoury taste throughout the dish. That’s the kind of influence the disciples are to have.
The passage that we have read today comes straight after the ‘Beatitudes’, that is, the passage where Jesus declares certain people blessed. From this we may gather that Jesus’ disciples spread their influence in the world through humility and compassion and purity of motive; and gentleness in all things; and quiet endurance even while being persecuted and vilified. For they are the people Jesus declares blessed.
It is first of all the person of Jesus who influences the world in this way, for he is the humble, gentle, compassionate one par excellence; he is the one who is totally pure in heart; he is the one for whom truth and righteousness are an all-consuming passion; he is the innocent one, who was abused and reviled and who died to bring peace to the world. In terms of today’s Reading, it is Jesus who is the light of the world. He is the salt that pervades it with divine savour. I am reminded of that beautiful passage in St John’s Gospel, where the same thing is said, only this time the metaphor is not light or salt, but exotic fragrance. You remember the scene where Martha’s sister Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. St John says that the house was suddenly filled with the fragrance of the ointment.
So if we are the light of the world it must be because it is Jesus who shines his light through us, for he is the Light of the World; and if we are the salt of the earth, it must be because Jesus first communicates to us that secret, gentle power of his to pervade and season society. St Paul means the same thing when he says that through his ministry God spreads everywhere the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ.
In other words, it is always Jesus himself who takes the initiative and influences others through us. And often he does so most effectively when we are not even aware of it. I know from my own experience that the people who influenced me most in a personal, religious sense had no reason to know what effect they had on me, no reason at all. And who knows what good influence you have on others, perhaps when you are least aware of it?
Now all this is very encouraging. For often we suppose that the good we try do in the world is to be measured by the visible success of our own projects, whereas in reality God is working through us all the time in ways we hardly suspect, and perhaps the less we imagine ourselves to be doing good, the more powerfully God is working through us. You don’t know the occasions when a word of yours, though quickly forgotten by you, has penetrated the soul of another person to change their life; nor how many times a simple gesture of goodness, a momentary externalization of the love that God has placed in you, has shone through other people’s darkness, and changed them, or cheered them up and given them a new vision of things.
And what I find encouraging most of all is the thought that the good influence that we have on a person doesn’t stop there: for that person in turn influences others, and they influence others. Goodness spreads in ever-expanding circles, through time, through space, through the whole of history, throughout creation, so that in the end it will be a marvel for us to behold, when God points it out to us, how amazingly pervasive and far-reaching our words and actions have been – like ‘sparks of fire darting through the stubble’, as the Book of Wisdom puts it.
All this is encouraging especially for those of you whose job and vocation is to influence people – and first and foremost, the parents among us. The acts of love and sacrifice that you make, the example of your own lives, your own faith and your struggles to meet the high demands of your vocation – they are never lost, they do influence your children for good more than you imagine, and then your children’s children, and their children too, always increasing goodness in the world, always expanding throughout creation. I often listen to parents who are very discouraged at the way their children have turned out (that’s how they see it, anyway). But if you have done your best to be good people and to bring your children up well, if you have lived your life in faith and love, then stop worrying and leave everything else to God. He knows how to spread the sparks of your goodness, in his own time, in his own way. You don’t know what your children will turn out to be in the future along the paths that God has prepared for them. Listen to the poet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You are the bows from which your children,
as living arrows, are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
And what applies to parents applies to all of us, for it is true of all of us that our vocation is to influence: hence the light and the salt and the perfume, and now the bow from which God shoots his arrows into the infinite. So much encouragement, therefore.
Of course, there is an obverse to it all. It would be foolish to forget that there is such a thing as bad influence, bad and hateful thoughts and words, faithless, irresponsible conduct; or just plain dire spiritual poverty. As with good influence, so also with bad: we often are not aware that it is happening. There is such a thing as salt that has lost its ability to benefit and light that has been blocked by sin. And the frightening thing is that the ripple effect applies to bad influence just as it does to good. So just as there are immense opportunities and magnificent prospects in our ability to influence for the good, so there are immense dangers and frightening prospects in our ability to influence for the bad. Like everything in the Gospel, there is grace, and there is danger.
Through this Eucharist may God increase his all-pervasive grace in us and protect us from all danger. Everything God wants of us presupposes that we are immersed in the love of Christ and illumined by his light: and this happens never more powerfully than when we enter with Jesus into the mystery of the Eucharist. Let us now do this – ‘for gladness’, as the poet says – and leave everything else to God.
Fr Tom Deidun